"Come closer. I have something very special to share with you."
From his vantage point at the rear of the chamber, Vincent gazed at Catherine as she gathered the children around her chair for story hour. The youngsters needed no urging to sit closer. They wriggled with excitement, craning their necks for a better view of her picture book. Several parents hovered just behind the group, including Kanin who jiggled a fretful Luke in his arms. Catherine’s voice will soothe the infant, Vincent thought. Later, Father would read to the older children, but the first twenty minutes of story hour were for the youngest tunnel members. The task of reading to the toddlers usually fell to Mary, but this Sunday Catherine had come at Vincent’s special request. "You are a beautiful reader, and the children love you," he had written in the invitation. Truthfully, he could wait no longer to see her. All week he had been consumed by thoughts of her, distracting him from his work and prompting curious looks from his tunnel family. It was getting harder to conceal the depth of his love for her, and as he leaned against the smooth rock of the chamber wall, he set his jaw and fought for self-control.
Ah, but she was beautiful tonight. Vincent’s gaze raked over Catherine’s simple attire: sage green sweatshirt, blue jeans, suede ankle boots. As she turned her head to smile at him, the candlelight caught the highlights in her hair and the sheen on her lips. He held his breath. Her eyes sparkled like the crystal he knew was beneath her shirt. He bowed his head and closed his eyes.
"In the great green room there was a telephone, and a red balloon, and a picture of…the cow jumping over the moon. And there were three little bears sitting on chairs…."
For a long moment Vincent blocked out everything except Catherine’s voice. She almost crooned the words of the bedtime classic, and a hush fell over the room. An image came to his mind of Catherine beside a cradle, reading the same words to another child, but he dismissed the vision as soon as it came.
"Vincent." His eyes opened as he heard his whispered name. Kanin now leaned against the chamber wall next to his friend. Luke had indeed calmed down, as entranced by Catherine as the rest of the group. Vincent smiled.
"Kanin. Good to see you. How’s Olivia tonight?"
"Resting. I think she’s over the worst of her cold. Although Luke might be getting it now, from how he’s been fussing all day."
Vincent looked at the baby’s reddened nose and agreed with him. The two friends fell silent as they listened to the familiar words of Goodnight Moon.
"Goodnight stars, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere." Catherine closed the book and returned it to her lap. "Our little bunny said goodnight to everything important in his world before he went to sleep. Who do you say goodnight to before you go to bed?" Several hands shot up. Although only preschoolers, they had observed enough from the older children to know the protocol when answering questions.
"Mine ‘tuffed piggy, Mudsy."
"I had a stuffed piggy too when I was growing up. Her name was Petunia." Bonnie smiled happily at finding something in common with the tunnel community’s favorite visitor. Catherine looked around at the other raised hands. "Joshua?"
"I tay goodnight to my team engine."
"What color is your steam engine, Josh? Is it…blue?"
Vincent noticed the care that Catherine took to affirm each child and to understand their developing speech. She will be a wonderful mother, he reflected, then clamped down on the direction of that thought.
Bonnie raised her hand again. "Yes, honey?" Catherine asked.
"Who you say nighty-night to, Mith Catin?"
Catherine froze, completely immobile except for the flush creeping over her cheeks. She didn’t need to look at Vincent to project her feelings to the back of the chamber. He felt her embarrassment at that innocently intimate question, and wondered how she would answer it.
"I say goodnight to the ones I love." At that Catherine lifted her eyes to his and held his gaze until he, too, was as red as she. He shifted against the wall of the chamber and lowered his head. She regarded the children again and put a new brightness in her voice. "Did you know that the young mouse is on every page? Let’s find him!"
As the children pressed closer to find the little mouse, Kanin, who had observed his two friends with interest, leaned in toward Vincent. "You’re a lucky man, my friend." He had pitched his voice low, but Vincent clearly heard the message of approval in those few words. He turned toward Kanin but did not meet his eyes. The response was barely audible.
"I wish I were."
Kanin paused, then, "You wish you were lucky?"
Vincent dipped his head. "I wish I were a man." At that he straightened and slipped from the chamber. Catherine, delighted by the children’s enthusiasm for the book, did not see him go.
"You missed my last story." Catherine entered Vincent’s chamber, book in hand, her loving smile touched with concern. Of course Vincent knew through the bond that she was approaching. He needed that time to prepare himself, to discipline his mind and body to receive her in friendship only. She could not know the effort it took him to set his longings aside. It was best that she never know all that was in his heart for her.
As Vincent looked at Catherine, he saw that she now wore his crystal over her shirt. The sight of the sparkling pendant stole the words of greeting from his lips. She does not want to hide tonight, he thought. But did he have the strength to keep his own desires hidden?
He did not answer the unspoken question, why he had left story hour, but opened his arms and enclosed her in a gentle hug. She sighed and snuggled in to his padded vest. His clothes were layered and restrictive, revealing no secrets except his body’s height and breadth. Her clothes, however, though modest, did nothing to hide the shape and curve of her, the womanliness of her. Vincent winced as awareness flooded through him, and he disengaged from the embrace. He could not share the entirety of his heart, but he would share truthfully.
"I knew you would come to me. It was wonderful watching you with the children, but I wanted you for myself…." No, that was more than he meant to say, but the words were spoken before he realized how they would sound to her. Catherine looked at him and smiled again. He recovered and changed tack.
"Sit with me awhile. Would you like some tea? I could ask William --" Catherine shook her head and sat down on the bed, curling her legs under her.
"No thank you, Vincent. Father, Mary and William himself have already plied me with tea. I shall float away if I have another cup!" The tunnel members were excellent hosts, but sometimes would not take no for an answer, especially where food was concerned. Vincent folded himself into the armchair opposite the bed and looked at Catherine, willing himself to convey only friendly interest. "Will you read the story to me now?"
"Yes, I’d love to. This was one of my favorite poems when I was a child." She leaned down on her side and opened the book.
"Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe –
Sailed on a river of crystal light,
Into a sea of dew."
Catherine looked down at the words and dutifully turned the pages, but she could have recited this poem from memory. She knew that Vincent was staring at her; it felt like a kind of possession, and she wanted him to possess her in any way he could. As she read the last verse, she closed her eyes.
"So shut your eyes while Mother sings
Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
As you rock in the misty sea
Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three:
Wynken, Blynken, and Nod."
Neither spoke for a moment. When Catherine opened her eyes, she saw that Vincent’s were now closed as well. Still reclining on the bed, she closed her fingers around the precious crystal. "Vincent." His eyes opened, piercing her with their intensity. "Did you leave story hour because of how I answered Bonnie’s question?"
She thought Vincent would look away but he did not. He seemed to be looking both at her and within himself, so she decided to risk one more truth. "Everyone knows that I love you."
And everyone knows that I love you. The unspoken words hung in the air between them. Catherine left the bed and knelt before Vincent’s chair, lowering her forehead to rest on his knee. Now so close to him, she could smell the combination of leather, wool, soap, and candle smoke that made up his personal scent. She breathed in deeply, and felt him tense under her touch. She began to rub her forehead against his knee. Her hands, which had fallen to his feet, copied the massaging motion. She felt the tightness in his body and yearned to soothe him, to reassure him that everything would be all right. If only he would allow her to touch him, to reach him….A small sound escaped her throat. "Vincent…?"
With a harsh groan, he jerked and leaned forward, resting his forearms unsteadily on his thighs. Catherine slipped backwards to the floor, but he did not look at her or assist her. Cautiously, she rose and sat upon the bed once again. As the moments passed and still he did not speak, she tore her gaze away and looked about the chamber, searching for some distraction. "You know, I think I will go and see William about some tea…." She started to rise from the bed.
"Kanin said I was a lucky man."
Catherine slowly sat back down and braced her palms on the edge of the bed.
"Kanin said I was a lucky man, and I said I wish I were…a man." An anguished look passed over Vincent’s face and he drew in a whistling breath. The words were spoken rapidly now, as if to make up for his earlier reticence. "I am different from other men, Catherine. I am not completely human. Look at my face. I do not have lips. I have a muzzle. And these hands. You told me that these are your hands, but you do not have claws for nails. And you are not covered in fur!" He faced her squarely, not flinching from what he believed was the hard reality. "I cannot proclaim my love for you, or show my love to you, no matter how much I want to. I can only treasure our love in my heart."
Catherine looked deeply into his eyes and saw how strongly he believed what he was saying. How was she going to penetrate this flawed reasoning? She suddenly understood that they would never realize their dream of a happy life together until he started thinking differently about himself. But how could she help him do that? What had she not already said to him?
She spoke slowly and calmly in counterpoint to his impassioned speech. "You know about my past, that I’ve had…other relationships." Vincent glanced up, wariness in his eyes, but she pressed on. "Will you let me tell you about them?"
He started shaking his head before she finished speaking. "You don’t have to tell me this." His voice was hoarse.
"I know, Vincent. But you need to hear this to understand what I feel for you." He still leaned upon his knees as if he were unable to support his body weight. They looked at each other in silence, their breathing loud in the dim chamber. His nod when it came was barely perceptible. Catherine licked her dry lips and prayed to get through this.
"When I was with Stephen Bass….When I was…with…Stephen Bass…."
"Catherine! Please!" Vincent stood up so quickly he almost knocked over his chair. Turning away from her, he retreated to the chamber wall farthest from the bed, pressing his forehead against the cool rock. Catherine remembered how minutes ago she had pressed her forehead upon his knee. The memory of that intimacy and her desire for more gave her courage to continue. She stood up and clasped her hands in front of her.
"Vincent, listen. Just. Listen. Please." She could not stop the tremor in her voice, but he cocked his head in her direction, and she knew that she had his grudging attention, for now.
"Stephen was the first man I’d ever been with. For a while I enjoyed the romance. The flowers, the whispers, the kisses and embraces." She paused, sorting through the memories of a previous self. "When my girlfriends told me about their experiences with men, they made it sound so wonderful and exciting. So…when Stephen asked me if I would have sex with him…I said yes. Vincent, I never told my friends this, but…I didn’t enjoy it very much. Stephen was always in a rush. And I was never quite…ready."
She risked a glance at Vincent and saw that while his head was still turned towards her, his eyes were pinched shut.
"There was no one after Stephen until I met Tom. Tom’s technique was better, and for a while I thought everything was terrific. But then things changed. Tom seemed to be looking for more excitement. I went along with him at first, but I felt so inadequate. I stumbled across some magazines in his office. Then tapes that he had forgotten in the VCR. I realized that he looked at those things before we had sex. I asked him about it once, and he said it was just something that men do." Vincent’s head was bowed, his shoulders slumped. "Just before I broke up with him, I suspected that he was seeing someone else. I don’t know for sure, but a few weeks after we parted, I heard that he was seeing the daughter of his financial advisor."
Catherine stopped talking and pressed her fingers to her temples. The beginnings of a migraine were prickling just beneath the surface. These confessions would cost her some hours of sleep tonight. She shut her eyes tight and searched for something to help him to understand. When she looked at him again, he was facing her, his hands clenched at his sides, his expression fierce.
"Do you think I want more of the same, Vincent? You said that you were different from other men. I was hoping you would be." Catherine could not stand the separation any longer. Closing the distance between them, she grasped his hands and stroked the fur with her thumbs. "You are…everything…that is attractive to me. I see your body, and what I cannot see, I imagine. This is what I know: You were designed for me. I was designed for you." She raised his hands to her lips and kissed them, as she had done once before on her balcony. "And if we were not designed to love, then what is it all for?"
That Catherine’s past physical relationships might have been unsatisfying, even painful, was a new concept for Vincent. His mind reeled from the sensitive information she had shared. He watched as she bowed her head over his alien hands, treasuring them. If he had not thought that he could love her more, he discovered differently tonight. Could he dare show her how different he was from the others? As if she sensed the question in his mind, she looked up. Their faces were mere inches apart. He slowly raised her fingers to his lips. He started kissing them, as she had done moments before. He heard her breathing hitch; saw tears slowly track down her cheeks. Then he placed her fingers on his own cheeks, and let her feel his own tears there. How else to show her that her dreams, her desires were his as well? More than that he could not venture.
Catherine took a half-step back. Vincent watched uncomprehendingly as she reached up and drew off his crystal necklace. She held it out to him. He could not read her expression, and a frisson of fear ran through him. He reached into their Bond and felt deep, deep emotion, overlaid with certainty.
"Are you returning it to me?" Are you giving up on me? was what he meant to say, but it had been a long time since Vincent had been able to say everything he meant to with Catherine. As it was, these were the first words he had spoken for some time, and his voice cracked with effort. But her answer, when it came, was gentle.
"I’m not returning it, Vincent. I’m entrusting it." She placed the necklace into his hand and folded his clawed fingers around it. The crystal was still warm from her body. She stepped toward him again and looked him full in the face. "I want to join with you. I want to love you. I want to live here with you. When your love for me is greater than your fear, give it back. I’ll be waiting for it." And she squeezed his fingers around her crystal and gave his hand a final kiss.
Vincent’s breath left him in a gush. "Catherine! I don’t…." But she did not let him finish.
"What? You don’t love me? You don’t fear that you’ll hurt me? Please don’t ask me to find someone else to love. Vincent! Do you want me to have more stories to tell you like Stephen and Tom? Do you really want me to be with someone who does not love me the way you do?"
He was silent for a moment. His throat ached, and he arched his head to ease the strain. "What do you think I am?" he choked out.
She did not reply until he looked at her. And then, curiously, she smiled.
As Catherine lay in her bed hours later, trying in vain to sleep, she second-guessed almost everything she had spoken to Vincent that night. It wasn’t the truth of her words that she doubted, but the wisdom of revealing – and demanding – so much. For weren’t her declarations of love a demand on him? I want to join with you, I want to love you, I want to live with you. She may as well have proposed marriage to him on a jumbotron. She groaned and curled into a fetal position. Her desire to hide was extreme. Desperate for privacy she clamped down tight on the Bond, although she knew it was no use. Vincent surely knew the depth and turbulence of her emotions. What would he say to her when he saw her next? And what on earth would she say to him?
With a grunt of frustration, Catherine hoisted herself out of bed and padded to the kitchen for a glass of water and a Tylenol. Replaying her conversation with Vincent was getting her nowhere; in fact, it was robbing her of what little hope she had that she had somehow penetrated his vast defenses. She sipped her water slowly as she wandered back into the bedroom. And narrowed her eyes at the closet doors. Now where did I put that box? she mused. She flicked on her bedside lamp and opened the closet doors. It’s up here somewhere….Shoving aside three hatboxes and an extra winter blanket, she wrestled a battered banker’s box down off the shelf. It was simply labeled "misc", but the items in this box were hardly miscellaneous. Catherine pulled off the lid and stepped into an earlier time, an earlier version of herself. This might not make her feel better, but it was high time that she purge her past. One by one, she withdrew the relics of her failed relationships.
Love letters from Stephen, filled with profuse descriptions of eternal love. A mixed tape from the summer of ’82. Concert programs, playbills, ticket stubs. In a royal blue jeweler’s box there was a chunky gold bracelet that Tom had given her for her thirty-first birthday. It was expensive though not to her taste, and she had only worn it once. And in another box, an atomizer of her favorite perfume at the time. There were also several books, including a poetry anthology, Gibran’s The Prophet, a pocket Kama Sutra (a not-so-subtle hint from Tom), and Richard Bach’s Illusions. The title of that last book pretty much summed up her hopes of finding love with these two, she thought ruefully. There were a few other odds and ends, then that was it. Why do I still have this stuff? she wondered. She started dividing the items into piles. The love letters, cassette tape, programs and ticket stubs would go in the garbage. The books could go to the second-hand shop near her office. The bracelet…hmmm. Maybe her father’s companion Kay would like it, or perhaps Jenny. She set the blue box aside until she could find a home for it. And the perfume….Catherine lifted it out of its box, took it to the bathroom and poured it down the sink. Chanel No. 5 permeated the small space, making her wheeze. She turned on the fan and closed the door. The empty atomizer went into the garbage pile too.
Catherine returned the empty box to the closet shelf. There. Done. She gulped the rest of her water and climbed back into bed. But her thoughts inevitably returned to Vincent. What he had given her in their brief time together could not be contained in a banker’s box. And now she didn’t even have her crystal to show for it. Her face contorted in distress, then irritation. She got out of bed one more time, slammed off the bathroom fan, then fell back on the sheets utterly exhausted.
While Catherine tossed on her bed, Vincent seethed on his. Viciously kicking back the sheets, he sat upon the edge of his bed in the exact spot that Catherine had occupied as she listened to his insecurities. Here, with him. Here, with him. Those three words pounded through his brain. She should be here with him, not alone in her apartment, not alone with their love. She knew it and she had been unafraid to say it. Vincent felt humbled in the face of her courage, although he suspected that she was beginning to regret her candor. He reached up and fingered the crystal pendant that now hung around his neck, under his cotton nightshirt. She wanted it back, she said. Vincent breathed out heavily. And that meant….He moaned softly. That meant throwing caution and care to the wind. She knew that he loved her, and she was asking him to claim her. It had been almost three years since that fateful spring night when he found her in the park, and it was high time. Time to face her. Time to test the dream. He groaned again and dropped his head into his hands. Hearing about her relationships with Stephen Bass and Tom Gunther had almost killed him. He had wanted to kill them for causing his beloved Catherine pain. With a sigh, Vincent tamped down those impulses. He felt sexual heat begin to rise in him, and for once he did not impede it. He wanted to love Catherine so completely and so relentlessly that it would drive every memory of those men from her mind. Could he dare offer himself to her? I want to join with you. I want to love you. I want to live with you. Vincent gripped the edge of the bed, every muscle straining.
Maybe he could.
He leaped from the bed and ran through the tunnels.
A slender arm, pale in the starlight. A fall of satin hair across a pillow. A soft curve of cheek and lip, an eyelid gently closed. Vincent did not know how long he watched Catherine through the open doors of her balcony. What would he have done had she been awake when he arrived in the grave hours of the night? While his desire for her did not lessen as he gazed at her sleeping form, it went from a hot boil to a patient simmer. He would not disturb her tonight; she needed whatever sleep she would get. He offered her only a whispered benediction, barely audible in the night breeze. "I love you, Catherine." He determined to find the right time to bless her with these words again; to finally honor her love for him.
"You mooning over some guy, Radcliffe?"
Catherine shot Joe a lethal look from across her cluttered desk. On three hour’s sleep and only half a cup of coffee, she was in no mood for teasing.
"Wouldn’t you like to know?" She gave him a mocking look. "Is this the best use of your time? Don’t you have to be at the courthouse in 15 minutes?"
"Yeah, I’m going, I’m going." Joe looked Catherine over appraisingly. She’d be drop-dead gorgeous in sackcloth and ashes, but he could tell she’d had a rough night. Her makeup didn’t quite conceal the circles under her eyes and the paleness of her skin. Her blouse was slightly askew; she’d gotten dressed in a hurry. "Just wondering what you were up to last night, that’s all. You look pretty wiped this morning." He gave her a wink and a slightly wicked smile.
Joe’s teasing combined with her own frustration and fatigue made Catherine belligerent. "What would you say if I told you that I asked the love of my life to marry me last night?"
Joe was completely nonplussed. "What’d he say?"
"He didn’t say yes, Joe."
Joe sighed in exaggerated relief. "Then I’d say you’re pulling my leg. No guy in his right mind would say no to hooking up with you." Before he turned away, he tapped her desk with his index finger. "Now I want the Fowler report on my desk by the end of the day. Oh, and by the way," -- another wicked smile – "you misbuttoned your blouse. See ya later, Radcliffe." Joe didn’t see Catherine’s tongue sticking out as he strode out of the office.
"Can I help you, Vincent?" Vincent was touched by the love and concern in Mary’s voice as he settled his large frame across from hers in her private chamber.
"Thank you, Mary. Do you have time to talk?" Vincent felt hesitant, but he knew he needed to confide in someone. Mary was almost like a mother to him, and he respected her counsel almost as much as Father’s. At this time, Father’s counsel was not his first choice. He would also have appreciated advice from the mystical Narcissa, but she was not always easy to find.
Mary laid down her knitting. "I always have time to talk to you. Would you like some tea?"
"No, thank you." When Vincent did not speak further, Mary looked at him inquiringly.
Vincent paused, feeling uncomfortable. Maybe he should begin with a different topic. "Tell me, how is little Luke doing? The last time I saw him, he looked like he was getting a cold."
Mary’s eyebrows quirked, but she answered his question. "Yes, he is rather miserable right now, but Father says it’s nothing serious. Olivia’s giving him acetaminophen and a nasal spray."
Vincent nodded and looked interested, but Mary could tell that his mind was elsewhere. When he remained silent, looking at a point just over her shoulder, she leaned forward and repeated her initial question. "Can I help you?"
His gaze snapped back to hers. "I’m sorry. It’s about…Catherine." Mary’s reassuring smile gave him confidence. "She says that she…loves me, Mary." He spoke with wonder in his voice. Her smile broadened.
"Of course she does, Vincent." As if it were common knowledge rather than an extraordinary revelation, she picked up her knitting and resumed the purl stitch.
"And I love her."
The needles barely paused, but she glanced up and smiled again. "Of course you do, Vincent."
He leaned forward, half out of his chair. "She wants to live with me and join with me. And everything, everything in me, wants to make that dream come true." He swallowed audibly. "You know what I am, and what her union with me would mean. I am afraid for her, that I would hurt her, and I am afraid for myself should I ever lose her." Another swallow, then in a painful rasp – "I once asked Father if I was a man. He said that part of me was. That means that part of me is not, and it is that part that I fear most. It is that part that will forever separate me from Catherine."
Mary returned her knitting to her lap. She thought for a moment and prayed for wisdom. "I think, Vincent, that you are asking the wrong question. Stop asking What am I? The question Why am I? is a better one for you. That question has a beautiful answer: To protect; to encourage; to teach others; to give love and to receive it." Mary wound up, determined to do everything she could to propel Vincent toward happiness. "Now listen. I’ll tell you something straight from the Good Book." She gestured to a black leather Bible on a side table. "Perfect love casteth out fear." Vincent leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, contemplating the truth in those simple words. Long minutes passed, and he was dimly aware that the clicking of the bamboo needles had resumed. "I’ll tell you something else from that Book too." Mary paused for dramatic effect. "It is better to marry than to burn." His eyes snapped open. "You think about that, Vincent."
Burn, burn, burn. Now that Vincent had allowed himself to feel the heat, he wanted the fire. It had only been two days since Catherine had challenged him in his chamber after story hour. Just two days, and he was losing his grip on some of his certainties. He decided to approach Father. He was not inclined to confide in him as he had to Mary, but Father had always grounded him, and he desperately needed that grounding now.
Sitting comfortably in his study, Father noted Vincent’s arrival. "Ah, good to see you Vincent. Come in and sit down." The physician in Jacob observed the fatigue on his son’s face and the awkwardness in his usually graceful movements. "Would you like to play chess, or discuss a book, or…." He allowed his sentence to trail off. Vincent did not sit, but leaned on the edge of the desk, fingering a book at the top of a particularly precarious stack. Mount St. Helens: the eruption and recovery of a volcano. Father clenched his teeth and tried to smile encouragingly. "I’d be happy to talk to you about anything. If it concerns Catherine…."
Vincent shifted and crossed his arms over his chest. "Father, I would like your advice. You have always guided me with love, and I want to know…if you think I can…." He stopped speaking and looked intently at the good man who had raised him. He did not know if he could finish his question. A minute passed – Father just looked at him – and Vincent wished intensely that he had not started this conversation. Father noted the perspiration on Vincent’s cleft upper lip, and sighed.
"‘Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right.’ Henry Ford." Father hoped that his quote was appropriate, and would not lead his son further astray. In truth, Father had come to accept Catherine. In truth, he had come to love her as well.
Vincent’s shoulders relaxed slightly, and he nodded. He pulled up an armchair and sat down. He picked up the Mount St. Helens book and flipped it open. "Would you like me to read to you, Father?"
Reclining on his bed the next day, candlelight flickering off the rough-hewn walls, Vincent surveyed his chamber. A beautiful place, carved out of dirt and rock. Most would have thought it an impossible place…and yet here it was. His few possessions were also beautiful; nothing was plastic or throw-away, everything was significant and meaningful. He realized that the chamber suited him, and he suited it. How he wanted Catherine here with him! And with that, a new certainty, a new faith, came to Vincent. He cast off his fear like a ragged cloak, and put his faith in love.
Would you join us for story hour again on Friday?
The children want to see you.
I want to see you.
I’ll be waiting for you at the threshold just before 7.
Love, Vincent. Catherine clutched the note as she contemplated her appearance in the vanity mirror. Her friend Nancy hadn’t been joking when she said that Catherine could have majored in fashion law. A significant portion of her wardrobe was devoted to killer courtroom outfits. She wished she could have worn one tonight, but the power suits and high heels that impressed judge and jury were inappropriate for tunnel wear. She didn’t think that she should say, do, or wear anything remotely suggestive. She was unsure how Vincent would treat her now, and she wanted to show him that she accepted and cherished his tender friendship, no matter how much she yearned for more. So she settled on grey slacks and a rose-colored cable-knit sweater. Crew neck, long sleeves. No skin.
No skin – and no jewelry. Catherine missed the cool weight of her crystal between her breasts. She had not been without it since Vincent had given it to her on their first anniversary. With a pang, she realized that he may never be able to return it to her. She felt her eyes begin to fill with tears, and she looked at herself angrily in the mirror. Don’t do this again, Cathy, she scolded herself. He’ll feel your pain. She closed her eyes and took some deep cleansing breaths. Reaching for a hairbrush, she schooled her hair until it fell in a soft wave to her shoulders. Some clear gloss on her lips; a sweep of mascara to her lashes. There, Chandler. Nothing suggestive at all. She squared her shoulders and palmed her keys. Ready for opening arguments.
As Catherine descended the ladder into the subbasement, she was surprised to find that Vincent had not yet arrived. She checked her watch: 6:51. Oh well, she knew the way and it was not dangerous. She had only taken only a few steps toward the community hub when she heard a familiar footfall. Vincent! And then there he was, his bronze mane framing his face, his slanted eyes glittering, his midnight cape swirling around soft leather boots. He was so physically breathtaking that Catherine just stopped and stared. He halted a bare two feet away from her and stared as well. He allowed his gaze to linger on her slender legs, her narrow waist, her cozy sweater. It was the color of roses, just like…her lips. Vincent considered Catherine’s lips for a moment, then looked boldly into her wide eyes. Finally, he spoke.
"You are beautiful tonight."
When she said nothing and continued staring, his eyebrows quirked. "Cat got your tongue, Catherine?"
What on earth….Catherine looked into Vincent’s eyes. She saw humor there, and love. A small smile tugged at her lips; her fear was lessening. "Well, not yet. But soon…I hope." He dipped his head and chuckled. Will wonders never cease? she thought. He is wicked….
He reached for her hand and squeezed it warmly. As he turned to lead her down the tunnel, she saw a familiar flash among the folds of his cloak.
"Vincent!" Catherine could not move. She looked at her crystal pendant, slung around his neck along with the leather pouch containing her mother’s rose. What could he mean by this? "Vincent…?"
He felt her confusion and leaned in low, pressing his forehead to hers in a gentle rub. He breathed in her scent and raised his hands to grip her shoulders. His words were a shiver along her skin. "Come. Let’s read to the children. Then we will talk."
They did not speak as they made their way through the tunnels, but the Bond strummed with intensity. Catherine bit down hard on her lower lip in an effort to contain her emotion. This direct, confident, sexy Vincent she had not expected. And it made her oh, so hopeful! She swallowed a sob. Vincent must have sensed her tumult, because he clasped her waist firmly and drew her in close to his side. He did not release her when they entered the library chamber, and everyone saw his intimate hold on her. Most of the children were already assembled, including baby Luke who gurgled happily on a blanket. Kanin and Olivia paused in their conversation and looked at the couple. Vincent and Catherine were too distracted to notice the wink that Kanin gave his wife. Mary snuggled a sleepy Bonnie in her arms and did not get up, but Father came over and greeted them warmly.
"Vincent, Catherine, I’m glad to see you made it." He looked pointedly at his timepiece. "Cathy, the children have requested an encore of Wynken, Blynken, and Nod. Your reading of the poem last week was exquisite. Would you indulge them this evening?" Father twinkled at her, pleased that the youngsters were developing a taste for fine literature, even at their tender age.
"Of course Father, I’d be happy to," Catherine said tremulously, relieved that her voice still functioned at all. Vincent’s arm slipped from her waist, and she walked over to the reader’s chair and sat down. Smiling at the children in front of her, she felt a book being placed in her hands. Focus, Chandler!
Holding out the book beside her, she began to read the magical words. Her voice was a soft ache, and some of the older children started watching her instead of the pictures, so remarkable was the play of emotions across her face.
"’Twas all so pretty a sail, it seemed
As if it could not be;
And some folks thought ‘twas a dream they’d dreamed
Of sailing that beautiful sea…"
Her voice wavered and broke. Vincent, who had been lounging against the chamber wall, straightened and moved forward a few feet, his gaze fastened on Catherine. The silence grew awkward, and then a small voice piped up.
"Mith Catin, why cwying? Mith Catin have owie?"
Catherine just stared at Vincent. Father intervened quickly. "Yes Bonnie, Miss Catherine has an owie and Vincent is going to tend to it. Vincent?" Father plucked the book out of Catherine’s fingers and motioned to Vincent to come and get her. Father smothered a grin. Any fool could see how it was between them, and he was no fool. "Here, I’ll finish the book. Miss Catherine will read for you tomorrow night, children, I’m sure," he added as she and Vincent left the library.
Vincent led Catherine the short distance to his chamber. Oh please, God, please please please! she prayed to herself. When they arrived in his sanctuary, he turned her to face him and stepped in close. Reaching up, he removed the crystal necklace from around his neck and placed it very deliberately around her own.
"Catherine." He spoke slowly, his voice shaking with fervency.
Tears streamed down her cheeks, making her eyes, lashes, and lips sparkle like miniature suns.
"Catherine," he said again. He threaded his fingers through her hair and gently held her head. His voice dropped to a whisper. "Will you join with me?"
She laughed in amazement. "Yes!"
"Will you live here with me?"
Yes. She nodded joyfully through her tears.
"Beautiful," he breathed, tilting her face for a better angle. And he bent his head toward the sunlight.